Daniel Murphy

Should the Cubs bring Daniel Murphy back in 2019?

Should the Cubs bring Daniel Murphy back in 2019?

With MLB Hot Stove season about 10 days away, Cubs fans are on the edge of their seats waiting to see how Theo Epstein's front office will reshape an underperforming lineup this winter.

The first step in that will be determining if there is a future with Daniel Murphy in Chicago and if so, what that future might entail. 

Murphy's introduction to the North Side fanbase was rocky, but he drew rave reviews from his teammates and coaches for how he conducted himself in the month-and-a-half he wore a Cubs uniform. 

He also filled a serious hole in the Cubs lineup, hitting .297 with an .800 OPS in 35 games (138 at-bats) while spending most of his time in the leadoff spot, helping to set the tone. Extrapolating Murphy's Cubs tenure over 550 plate appearances, it would be good for 23 homers, 86 runs, 49 RBI and 23 doubles over a full season. That would be worth 3.4 WAR by FanGraphs' measure, which would've ranked third on the Cubs among position players in 2018 behind only Javy Baez (5.3 WAR) and Ben Zobrist (3.6). (By comparison, Baseball Reference rated Murphy a -0.2 WAR player with the Cubs due to a much worse rating on defense.) 

Murphy's performance defensively at second base left quite a bit to be desired, but it's also worth pointing out he had major surgery on his right knee last fall. The procedure wasn't just a cleanup — he had microfracture surgery and cartilage debridement and wasn't able to return to the field until the middle of June this summer despite an Oct. 20, 2017 surgery.

The Cubs will begin the 2019 season without a clear, everyday choice at second base and the lineup can use a guy like Murphy, who has a great approach each time up and leads baseball with a .362 batting average with runners in scoring position since the start of the 2016 season.

So could a reunion be in the cards?

"I wouldn't rule anything out," Epstein said the day after the Cubs' 2018 campaign ended prematurely. "It was a pleasure having Daniel here. He did a lot to right our offense right after he got here and contribute while being asked to play a bigger role than we envisioned when we got him because of some other injuries, because of our lack of performance offensively and then because of the schedule. He was asked to play a lot more than expected, than probably he was ready to based on the proximity to his knee surgery.

"So I think he's gonna have a real beneficial offseason, get even stronger and be ready to contribute next year. Which league that's in and for what team remains to be seen. But I certainly think he acquitted himself well here, was REALLY respected by his teammates. Our guys loved talking hitting with him. It was a daily occurrence. Long discussions about hitting with him, picking his brain. 

"We look a lot better with him than without him, so I wouldn't rule anything out."

There's a lot to unpack here. Epstein was refreshingly honest throughout his whole press conference and that continued with regards to Murphy.

For starters, notice how Epstein first said he wasn't sure "what league" Murphy will be playing in. The Cubs president of baseball operations is typically extremely measured when speaking with the public and he almost never says anything by accident.

Murphy will turn 34 April 1 and was never renowned as an elite fielder even before that major knee surgery. Meaning: The writing has been on the wall for over a year that the veteran may be best suited for a designated hitter role with his new contract and Epstein is clearly well aware of that perception/narrative.

The other aspect of Epstein's comments is how he began and ended his statement on Murphy — that he wouldn't rule anything out and the Cubs obviously thought it was a successful pairing.

It's hard to argue with that on the offensive side of things and his impact was also felt off the field, where he was praised often by his teammates and coaches for talking hitting with younger players like Ian Happ and David Bote. 

Imagine how the final 6 weeks of the season would've looked had the Cubs not acquired Murphy in the middle of August to agument the lineup. The Brewers would've probably nabbed the division lead well before a Game 163.

Still, Murphy's hitting prowess both on and off the field wasn't enough to help the Cubs lineup avoid a slide that led to a date with the couch before the NLDS even began. Epstein's statement about how the Cubs "look a lot better" with Murphy than without is probably more about how fresh the sting was from the inept offense that managed just 2 runs scored in 22 innings in the final two games of the season.

Given his consistency the last few years, his advanced approach at the plate and his (recent) unrivaled ability to come through in key spots, Murphy's bat would be a welcome addition to any Cubs lineup moving forward. 

But it would still be tough to fit Murphy on the Cubs' 2019 roster for a variety of reasons. 

For starters, if the Cubs truly have a desire to write out a more consistent lineup next year, it's tough to add another aging veteran to a mix that already includes Ben Zobrist (who will be 38 next year), especially when they both spend a majority of their time at the same position (second base) and shouldn't be considered everyday players at this stage in their respective careers.

Murphy's defense/range also doesn't figure to get much better as he ages — even with an offseason to get his knee back up to 100 percent health — and second base is a key spot for run prevention, especially in turning double plays with a pitching staff that induces a lot of contact and groundballs.

Offensively, Murphy isn't perfect, either. He's never walked much, but in 2018, he posted his lowest walk rate since 2013. He also struck out 15.7 percent of the time in a Cubs uniform and while that's a small sample size, it still represents his highest K% since his rookie 2008 season (18.5 percent). 

Then there's the splits — the left-handed Murphy hit just .238 with a .564 OPS vs. southpaws in 2018, a far cry from the .319 average and .864 OPS he posted against right-handed pitchers. That was a steep drop-off from the previous three seasons (2015-17), in which he put up a .296 average and .810 OPS against lefties.

Add it all up and Murphy's potential fit with the 2019 Cubs is questionable at best, especially if an American League team hands him more money and years to come DH for them and hit near the top of their order.

But like Epstein said, don't rule anything out.

As win-or-go-home wild card game arrives, what's happened to Cubs' offense? 'I don’t have any really solid answers'

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USA TODAY

As win-or-go-home wild card game arrives, what's happened to Cubs' offense? 'I don’t have any really solid answers'

Want to know how the Brewers caught the Cubs for the NL Central crown?

Take a look at the September numbers.

The Cubs slashed .239/.303/.367, scored 116 runs and hit 21 homers in the month of September. The Brewers slashed .250/.343/.445, scored 144 runs and hit 39 homers in the month of September.

No, it doesn't tell the whole story. But the Brewers have swung hot bats for the last month and the Cubs haven’t. At the very least, you could count on more consistent offensive production from the Milwaukee lineup than the Chicago one.

And that’s what played out in Monday’s Game 163. The Brewers might not have lit up the scoreboard, but they banged out 12 hits and came through in the moments they needed to. The Cubs had three hits on the day and gave themselves few opportunities.

“They got 12 hits, we got three,” manager Joe Maddon said. “(Anthony Rizzo) obviously righted the ship for us a little bit (with his game-tying solo home run). But we weren’t really striking the ball with any kind of consistency.”

The Cubs don’t need to worry about the Brewers right now. The focus is squarely on Tuesday night’s win-or-go-home NL wild card game against the Rockies at Wrigley Field. The question is: Can they figure out what’s plaguing their offense and score enough to see the Brewers later this week?

“Well it’s been going on for a bit,” Maddon said of the Cubs’ offensive inconsistencies. “It’s just the consistent hard contact has not been there, more than anything. And I can’t give you a solid reason.

“We’ve got to find it. Quickly. The capabilities are within the group, there’s no doubt. We have one more shot tomorrow to right the ship and then move on from there. I don’t have any really solid answers.”

That’s probably some pretty scary stuff for Cubs fans to read, but they know it to be true after watching this team for the last month.

The good news is the Cubs do get to turn to Jon Lester, and Cole Hamels later on, who have a ridiculous amount of high-leverage playoff experience between the two of them. The pitching has been good, as evidenced in Monday’s game, with Jose Quintana and a parade of relievers limiting the Brewers to just three runs. Quintana surrendered just one before getting lifted after the sixth inning’s first batter.

The bad news is the mystery. Who knows what this offense will be able to do? The Rockies will throw Kyle Freeland, who owns a 2.85 ERA and has quite simply been one of the NL’s finest starting pitchers this season. The Cubs scored 33 runs in this year’s six games against the Rockies — but how much difference does that make when Colorado scored the exact same amount against them?

There’s no magic bullet or one thing this lineup needs to do to turn things around.

“Hopefully we score more runs,” second baseman Daniel Murphy said. “That’d be a nice start, I’d like to get more hits.”

Yeah, that’s what Cubs fans are hoping for, too.

“Guys have really good routines, preparation, going over the starting pitchers, going over the bullpen. We’re engaged on the bench,” Rizzo said. “Sometimes you’re hot, sometimes you’re not.”

Again, perhaps not the explanation Cubs fans want to hear with the season on the line Tuesday night.

But this team has earned the benefit of the doubt, too. The Cubs have played deep into October in each of the last three postseasons, and that doesn’t happen without figuring out how to come up with the right hits at the right times. Heck, even in what is being looked at as a more disappointing season to this point than its predecessors, only one NL team has a better run differential at the close of the regular season: the NL West champion Dodgers.

“We won 95 games. It just wasn’t good enough,” Rizzo said. “We won 98 games one year, and we were happy we were in the the wild card (game). It’s just the way it’s shifted around here, the expectations have gone up, and we hold ourselves to an extremely high level. I think tomorrow it’s all about focusing on having good at-bats. And usually if you have good at-bats, good things come out of it.”

Even external factors can make all the difference. Saturday’s loss to the Cardinals featured plenty of the hard contact Maddon has been searching for, just right at St. Louis defenders. In Monday’s game, a different direction of wind might have changed the game entirely, with Rizzo and Jason Heyward both seemingly launching balls into the seats, only for them to settle in outfielders’ gloves.

“We need the wind to not knock mine down and Tony’s there at the end,” Heyward said. “Because if we’re playing in Milwaukee, those two might’ve been gone.”

So while Murphy’s comments about getting more hits and scoring more runs might’ve seemed a bit simplistic, they aren’t wrong.

The Cubs have one more shot Tuesday night to save their season, and like many of the games they’ve played this year, it won’t be easy. But look at what this team has done before, where it’s been, and perhaps you’ll come to the conclusion that counting these players out makes as little sense as these offensive struggles.

Why Joe Maddon will keep Daniel Murphy in the leadoff spot

Why Joe Maddon will keep Daniel Murphy in the leadoff spot

When the Cubs offense was struggling just a few days ago, it was easy to come up with solutions in theory as an armchair/press box/Twitter manager.

The lineup appears to have its mojo back the last few days, but now the postseason — and Game 163 — is upon us, so each individual game carries far more weight than the previous 162.

One such theory was to tinker with the batting order, namely to move Daniel Murphy out of the leadoff spot and into the middle of the order. 

After all, Murphy is the league's best hitter with runners in scoring position since the start of the 2016 season (.362 AVG) and timely hitting is the area the Cubs offense tends to struggle with most when it does go into slumps.

As the leadoff hitter, conventional wisdom suggests Murphy would get fewer opportunities to come up with runners in scoring position given he follows the bottom of his team's order, which includes either the pitcher's spot or a pinch-hitter.

Murphy also doesn't walk a whole lot and his on-base percentage (.331) comes in behind seven of the Cubs' regulars plus pinch-hitter extraordinaire Tommy La Stella.

Yet Joe Maddon has diligently kept Murphy atop the Cubs lineup in 29 of his 34 starts in a Cubs uniform. 

Why?

A big part of the reason is the tone Murphy sets for the lineup and it's hard to argue that point. 

Murphy carries a modest 10-game hitting streak into Monday's Game 163 and he's reached base safely in his first plate appearance in 5 of those 10 games (homer, walk, 3 singles) and come around to score 3 times, helping the Cubs get an early lead.

Maddon has talked a lot lately about the advantage of scoring first and easing the pressure off the rest of the team — which is especially important this time of year.

Then there's the underrated reason — maximizing Murphy's at-bats early in games so he can be replaced later for a better defender (which has been Ben Zobrist moving in from the outfield recently). 

"Murph's all on board. That's part of the reason why I like him [leading off]," Maddon said. "A) He's doing a great job as a leadoff hitter. B) In the latter part of the game, by hitting leadoff, if you have the lead, then you can get him out possibly sooner.

"When you're really into that defensive maneuvering, if you can get that guy that you want to take out hitting sooner in the batting order, it normally does help. So him hitting first has really helped out a lot because he's setting a great tone and beyond that, that last at-bat we can take him out and set things up differently."

Makes sense, especially when considering how premium of a position second base is in terms of turning double plays and overall run prevention.

Maddon first introduced Cubs fans to this way of thinking by utilizing Chris Coghlan in a similar fashion in 2015 — hitting the veteran third in the batting order and playing second base and then swapping him out after 2-3 at-bats for a defensive upgrade.

Murphy should start every single game of the postseason if he's healthy and most likely will continue to fill that leadoff role, setting the tone.

And speaking of 2015, Cubs fans can remember the "tone" Murphy is capable of setting as he proved in the NLCS that fall.

"He's beaten the crap out of us for years, so all of a sudden, he's on your side and the guys have seen this and now they wanna drink from that fountain," Maddon said earlier this month. "And they have, and he's willing to give up the information. 

"It's really a great method for a manager to watch this whole thing. It's great to see."